As living creatures, we all need to eat. Though food is of course a biological necessity, its status as such means that, as a cultural object, it is often taken for granted, left unanalyzed. In other words, food’s political dimensions, the network of social and political forces shaping who eats what and why, too often go overlooked.
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Oakland native and local food entrepreneur Amina Robinson-Briscoe, colloquially known as “Chef Mimi”, is well-aware of this blindspot in regard to food’s political significance and is, with her multiple business projects, seeking to remedy it. One of these projects is The Black Food and Wine Experience, a week-long celebration of Black culinary excellence organized by Chef Mimi and hosted at multiple Oakland restaurants.
The experience encompasses a series of events each of which is designed to foreground Black leaders in the world of food and beverages, support prospective Black entrepreneurship in the field, and foster solidarity with other marginalized communities.
We were incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to gain some insights from Chef Mimi herself in regard to both the complex intersection of food and social justice as well as her personal journey through the worlds of food and business.
Did your culinary interests evolve over time into a broader passion for health, education, and community outreach, or have food and activism always been intertwined for you?
Yes, it is hard to be in the field of culinary arts and see and feel the disparity. As one of three Black students in my graduating class at the SF Culinary Arts Academy in the 90s, I grew frustrated with the serious lack of representation of Black chefs in the curriculum and broader media, as well as the ways in which food has been used as a tool for racism in policy, business and media.
It is no secret that communities of color have been intentionally excluded from accessing healthy foods and that in popular culture, Black cuisine has been largely minimized to stereotypical soul food recipes that completely ignore modern Afrocentric culinary culture that artfully weaves together traditional soul dishes, Southeast Asian and Caribbean flavors and the artistry of classic French cuisine.
Food injustice has been inflicted upon the Black community for generations, resulting in massive health disparities, staggering rates of obesity and chronic disease and entire communities relying on liquor stores for grocery access.
Was there a specific experience / set of experiences that informed/cemented your motivation to use food to help uplift Black communities?
As a Black business owner and someone who has lost a child to gun violence, it was extremely important for me to carry out my passion and pour love into the Black community with the gift that was given to me. This journey allowed me to use the grief and angel energy to make a difference.
In your incredibly illuminating LinkedIn article, you discuss the necessity for a cultural shift within Black communities that will help end the pathologization of/racial stigma surrounding healthy eating. Do you have any advice for non-chefs and young people in these communities in regard to what they can do to help initiate that shift?
I love this question! I would say don't allow others or circumstances to define who you are, explore and try new things. Food is a universal language, and you can learn so much about someone’s culture by exploring family traditions, styles of cooking and more. Healthy eating can be fun, and it is not reserved for a certain person of status.
On “Bringing It to the Table”, my web reality cooking competition show, I challenged seven chefs to shop in a neighborhood liquor store with 8 mins to shop and $8 in cash. They were challenged with making a gourmet, 5-star meal. Using what you have, creative can take you into a lot of amazing places in life.
Which of your three ventures (The Black Food and Wine Experience, Bringing it to the Table, and Chef Mimi Catering) did you first embark on? What’s been the most challenging and the most rewarding aspects of spearheading multiple entrepreneurial projects?
I started Chef Mimi Catering right after culinary school and “Bringing It to the Table” came about because I loved watching cooking shows and wanted to see more Black chefs cooking all types of foods. The Black Food & Wine Experience was something I started to fundraise for the web series. I had no idea that it would be such a success. The most difficult journey out of the three brands would hands-down have to be “Bringing It to the Table” cooking competition because the industry wasn’t ready to see Black Chefs cooking more than soul food.
It’s not widely acknowledged but many of America's table favorites were produced by Black people. George Crum invented the potato chip, Nathan “Uncle Nearest” Green taught Jack Daniels his method of distilling whiskey, and James Hemings perfected and popularized macaroni and cheese, French fries, and ice cream in the U.S. Many Black folks were the original farmers, and the farm-to-table concept was something they brought to America's tables. Because getting a network to pick the show up was so difficult, I decided to use the model in an event format and the Black Food & Wine Experience was born.
Is there a particular event on the itinerary for the 2022 Black Food and Wine Experience for which you’re especially excited?
Someone asked me this question today and it was very hard to say because all of them are so unique.
The Black & Asian Solidarity Dinner highlights Pan-African and Vietnamese cuisine. The intersectionality of flavor tells the story of two different cultures and the similarity they share. Today so many people are suffering, and I wanted to make a difference by breaking bread and bringing awareness.
The Black Wall Street Dinner will pay homage to those who lost their lives and wealth through an invite-only intimate dinner inspired by the elements of Earth, Wine and Fire. I am most grateful for my partnerships with Treasury Wine Estates, Patrón and finally Wachira Wines, the first Kenyan-American winery in the U.S., for hosting us in their beautiful space.
The Food & Beverage Summit is so important because it allows me to give back to the industry and support the professional development of Black talent. The panel includes Julia Collins of Planet FWD and Erin Harris of Pronghorn and will be moderated by Maryam + Company. It makes my heart sing to be on the forefront of creating opportunity and discussion on how to survive and thrive post-Covid. The fact that I am hosting so many seasoned Black-owned food & beverage businesses to build solidarity allows me to heal from the feeling of not being seen. We are building a powerful movement and I’m so proud. Everyone is welcome and it's nothing but love. I hope to see you all there.
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The Black Food and Wine Experience begins formally on June 11th with the Black and Asian Solidarity Dinner and will culminate in the Grand Tasting held at The Hive Oakland on June 18th. See the full itinerary and purchase tickets here!
Photography by: Rachel Claire/Unsplash